... flutters, then settles on the one mauve flower of the aubrietia I've just planted and raises its wings in the sunlight to display a translucent pale green underside and a single brown dot.
It's mild and dry. Too mild and worryingly dry, according to Monsieur F who pauses from spreading fertiliser pellets in the field below the cottage garden and climbs down off his tractor for a chat. He contrasts our situation with the flooding in Cumbria and we shake our heads over what they are suffering in the UK and also the state of the reservoirs along our valley (in eight years we've never seen them so low) and what this will mean for crops next summer if we have no winter rain.
We wish each other "bonne continuation" - he to his tractor, me to my fork and pickaxe as I return to the seemingly never-ending task of removing builder's rubble, ever deeper and ever larger, from the cottage flower beds. If this coming year is to be dry the plants will need all the help they can get to extend their roots to find moist soil.
I'm hoping the buddleia that died back during this year's drought will revive and be covered in butterflies next summer.
The cranes have been moving south since September (much too early!) and we've been dithering about moving back to "winter quarters". Then a few days of damp cold and a sulky wood burner in the lounge that refused to heat beyond the sofa persuaded us it was time to carry our clothes, food and computers from the house down the track to the cottage.
At which point the weather promptly warmed up again! So, over the last few days, we have been basking in sunshine that has turned the garden gold and scarlet. The promise of heavy rain and thunderstorms, however, has had me out with the camera attempting to capture this glorious show before it finally disappears.
The owner of Guccio (late-lamented, much loved Spinone) likes to help prepare meals when he comes to stay and this year was no exception. So while Tod was having an osteo session one hot day I watched a watermelon salad being prepared for lunch for the three of us.
Tod was late, so we sat on the veranda and started without him. We chatted and ate and ate and chatted and then realised we'd eaten virtually all of the salad. I was eyeing the nearly empty bowl when Tod came back to sample the two final mouthfuls, somewhat peeved to discover what he'd been missing.
Through this parched summer it's become our firm favourite - even usurping Hugh's delicious endive and pear salad.
The other day, we served The Salad as a starter for a lunch with friends to much acclaim and requests for the recipe. It has already gone on to other shared meals to general approval.
I had hoped to show a picture here, but overnight watermelons have disappeared and butternut squashes have arrived. Summer is definitely over.
Nevertheless, I will share the recipe while I remember it .... Watermelon, Red Onion, Feta and Basil Salad
The ratio of red onion to watermelon is roughly one onion to half a
good sized melon.
- Half a large watermelon roughly chopped into small chunks (Lidl’s seedless melons make life easy, if not available, deseed the melon as best you can, but it's not a major problem if some seeds are left in)
- One very thinly sliced red onion (leave the red translucent slices in their fine crescent shapes, they add impact to the salad)
- A good big handful of basil leaves roughly chopped plus a few
chopped mint leaves mixed in (not many, just there for a hint)
- A pack (180-200gms) of feta cheese roughly cubed
- Two table-spoons of pumpkin seeds which have been lightly dry
cooked in a frying pan for a few minutes til they begin to pop (they add a nice crunch to the salad and are useful if you can't get seedless melons as they disguise any residual melon seeds)
- Good sprinkling of salt
- Lots of black pepper
- Balsamic velours drizzled over everything
- Balsamic vinegar generously sloshed round
Mix all the ingredients very thoroughly together in a large bowl and enjoy. This should make enough for four for a starter or two to three for a light lunch. But beware, it is VERY moreish and any later-comers to the table may find there is none left. I fully expect to be invited to at least one lunch party next summer where this salad is served. Indeed, it is so good, I believe it has already gone viral across the whole of the Lot & Garonne.
Yet again the météo tells us that overnight there is a "risque d'orage" (chance of thunder storms) and even grêle (hail).
As I stroll with the dogs in the semi-dark I can see the flicker of lightning along the western horizon - too far away to hear any thunder. Vita walks unconcerned - nose down in the long grass at the verge of the narrow road. If she looks skywards it's not in apprehension, but merely snuffing at the sharp wind blowing across the top of the maize.
Just in case, the Batmobile (with its vulnerable soft top) has been moved in under the roof of the wood store.
In hope more than expectation I have trailed the hose pipes across the garden yet again, down to the nearly empty water tank by the cottage. The pipes will carry any rain from the great sloping roof of the house - a roof which carries so much water in a downpour that the water butts are full and overflowing in minutes. How much better to have that precious overflowing flood caught and conserved in the tank.
But I doubt it will be. All evening I've been following on the internet thunderstorms up through northern Spain where, blocked by the Pyrenees, they turn west. The small white points of each lightning strike crackle continuously through my computer's speakers. I watched the first band of storms head out across the Bay of Biscay and I fear that the next will do the same, perhaps touching Bordeaux but not coming this far inland.
I wake at 2am - fooled by the sound of the wind rattling the bone-dry, bleached maize, thinking I am hearing pouring rain. I stand on the lawn in the dark, my bare feet pricked by coarse toughened grass stalks. Bertie whimpers at the door to be let out to join me, but I tell him there's no point and we go back to bed.
At 4am, Vita stands in the kitchen barking, making more noise than the distant thunder which has disturbed her. One crash comes closer and this time the hissing noise is rain. It is over in ten minutes. And Vita returns contentedly to bed.
In ten weeks we have had no more than two day's rain. The grass the following morning is barely damp.
Tod asks me why so many of my generation are called Susan. There were five Susans in my class.
I don't know. And it's too late to ask my parents.
If I'd been an Elizabeth it would have been obvious why.
So I google famous Susans and find that many - Susan Hampshire, Susan Sarandon, Susan Sontag - are roughly my contemporaries. Their parents responding to the same zeitgeist no doubt.
So, Susan Hayward perhaps? Looking unbelievably glamorous and at the height of her career the year I was born. Google tells me "By the late 1940s, the quality of her film roles had improved, and she achieved recognition for her dramatic abilities with the first of five Academy Award nominations for Best Actress for her performance as an alcoholic in Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman (1947)" I wonder if they'd seen the film beforehand whether my parents would still have chosen her name?
And I wonder if my parents realised what they were giving me along with my name? Susan is the sensible one. The older sister. The one who looks after the others and makes sure they have their scarves and have had breakfast. She's there in the Narnia books (until she becomes too grown-up and sensible to take part). She's the same in Swallows and Amazons. I never identified with the Susan in these stories. I wanted to be a Lucy, or a Nancy, or a Jo from Little Women. The one who was always being naughty or rebellious and getting into trouble.
So I tried to cast off my sensible mantle and became a "Sue". And from then on the only person who called me "SUSAN" in a certain tone of voice was my mother.
But here, in France, "Sue" does not work well. The sound is too short, too abrupt. The combination of letters does not suit the French tongue and (I suspect) is not pleasing to the French ear. So I have rediscovered my full name. But now it has quite another quality.
Asked my name, I say "Susan", but what is written down and what is said back to me in French is "Suzanne", the voice lingering on the final syllable with even a hint of an "a" on the end. Oh, how much more exotic and exciting and mysterious.
Leonard Cohen's Suzanne would never have been described as "sensible".
... we leave the swimming pool cover off at night in the hope that the water will cool;
... I'm grateful for the sweat from my hair line running down the side of my face and drying on my cheeks as I walk the dogs late at night past Philippe's now-harvested barley field;
... the water butts and underground tank are empty. I'm reluctantly using tap water and the météo promises at least another two weeks of high temperatures. At this rate it would be cheaper to let the veg garden dessicate and buy what we need from Lidl's;
... gardening is squeezed into the few hours before eleven in the morning;
... by mid-day the hydrangeas are wilting, no matter how much water I give them;
... I scan the skies for signs of thunder clouds building in the hope that they will break over us and not slip away north to the Dordogne;
... the citronella candles are recovering in the fridge. Left unlit on the table outside the cottage, they gently melted in the noonday sun over the new "Paris grey and red to match the parasols" plastic tablecloth;
... in the crêperie tonight Giselle air-kisses from the other side of the courtyard, exclaiming it's too humid for physical contact. We have gone there to celebrate. Tomorrow is the start of our ninth year in France.
... and their (at least round here) suspicion of anything even slightly unusual.
The so-called "potager" has not been a success this year.
I was deeply disheartened when all bar one of a row of tiny pea seedlings were chopped off at the knees - each small stem with its two leaves scattered across the ground. Mice at play maybe?
Then NONE of the row of broad beans I planted came up.
And only three of the cavalo nero (sounds much posher than black kale) emerged.
I was full of plans to replant, but then the weeks slipped by, the ground became harder, I was busy doing other things and the beds became weedier and weedier and my disheartenedness (disheartenment?) got deeper and deeper, not least because every day I went into town I passed all these immaculate weed-free front gardens with row after row of burgeoning peas, neatly staked tomatoes, just-emerging onions and artichokes
But the "other things" (a photo competition and an exhibition) have eased and we have guests arriving shortly and I thought I just could not have them walking past this sad veg patch, looking like there's an Eeyore hiding in there, somewhere.
So drastic measures were called for, I set off, without much hope, to the large Jardiland in Agen where last year I had bought those oh-so-successful yellow French beans. That was at the right time of year though. Now it's much too late to be planting, especially with this heat. And sure enough there were a couple of sad tables displaying left-over etiolated tomato plants, courgettes and a few melons, aubergines and the like. Not a "haricot vert" in sight.
But then, on closer inspection, joy of joys, there tucked away in the middle punnet after punnet of healthy young plants - yellow green beans - so much tastier than the green variety and so much easier to see when they are small and sweet and hidden beneath their leafy cover.
I bought twenty-four! And that still left a few. Just in case there was an adventurous French gardener around who might, possibly, be tempted to try something different.
Here's hoping that I can keep them all safe from marauding mice, slugs and the heat. Then maybe I'll be able to fool our guests that I am a serious veg gardener. Bit like buying an M&S cake and passing it off as home-made!
... for everything and everything in its place." One of my father's favourite aphorisms.
I've been watching with horrified fascination an American series of programmes on TV - "Tiny House Nation" - where entire families plus large dog move into a space no bigger than an average cricket pavilion and inwardly I weep. ONE very small bathroom. FOR ALL OF THEM! Bedrooms separated by no more than a sliding cupboard!
And where does all their stuff go? The old letters and photos. The "just might be useful one day" bits of technology. The furniture and lighting just waiting for a make-over. The books inherited from parents still to be read. The exotically coloured reference tomes, hardly opened: Life on Earth, Wild Flowers of the World, British and European Birds. Well of course, these families get rid of it all. But how could they? And in a few months/years time will they bitterly regret it?
We, on the other hand, have a loft which on its own is bigger than the entire cubic space these families are moving into. We have a garage (ditto). We have a wood store. We have a what-the-French-call-hanger. We have a one-day-to-be-front-hall (currently dumping ground). We have a utility room. Which means that when I want something like a spare dog lead it could be anywhere in one of six places. Well maybe not the wood store; although you'd be amazed what does creep out there. I think we have a poltergeist with a malicious sense of humour who shifts stuff around when we're not looking.
In theory we have more than sufficient places for everything. But that's the problem. How to decide and then remember which place is for what? And, did the "what" get back to its place after the last time it was used? I blame the poltergeist.
So maybe there's something to this Tiny House Nation thing after all. Although I do think we'd need a tiny house each plus another for the dogs. (I couldn't be coping with that one bathroom nonsense.)
I was not driving fast. Nearly in town, the 50 km/h indicator had flashed at me and I was going slowly. But still there was no time to stop. The cat dived out in front of me and then tried to double back.
I felt the soft bump as I went over its body. I looked in the mirror expecting to see it lifeless at the roadside and, appalled, I saw it was still running.
In shock, I kept on driving.
In the days that followed, sick to my stomach, I lived and relived those agonising moments and wished desperately that I could undo what I had done. Not the fact that I had run it down - I knew I could not have avoided the accident. But that I had driven on, that I had not stopped, not been with it as it died (I was certain death was inevitable). Not stayed to find its owners and explain. Left someone else to cope with a dying cat.
What if someone had done that to Bertie? I would have been heart-broken.
What does it say about me? That I can leave a being dying at the side of the road.
So I went back. I wrote words on a card so I could put together the phrases - my shame, my inexcusable behaviour. I walked the streets around and talked to people, tried to find someone who might know of a missing cat. And learnt the hard way how unsentimental French people can be about cats.
I expected shock and disgust at my behaviour and met mild amusement at my "English sentimentality" and surprise that I was troubled. I was told "a cat is not a dog" "they do not have owners" "even in town they are feral".
I learnt enough. I met a man who had seen the body in the gutter. We talked of his beautiful roses and that his wife had inherited a grand house in Tunisia. He told me not to worry. I found two small, scruffy blocks of flats with semi-wild cats watching me warily from under rusting cars. I was told (with disapproval) that people in the flats feed the cats. I watched a black one streak across the road as a car approached. I think there are no owners to whom I have to explain the inexplicable and apologise.
And so, the people who talked to me that morning gave me a kind of closure. I still believe I was wrong and I hope that if ever it happens again, next time I will stop.
The Cat - that beautiful tabby creature I saw for a fleeting moment - is still with me. In my mind, the Cat is curled in comfort on my lap, walks with me through the garden and will continue to do so for the rest of my life.
In the 1970's I lived in Brazil and I wrote home to my mother in the UK every week. Those letters became the story of my life there. In 2007 I moved to south west France. Not quite sure where "home" is, I have no family left in the UK. If I did, these words would be my letters home, capturing the first impressions of my life here, to share, enjoy and perhaps re-read in years to come.